Scientists trying to unwrap the mysteries of a more than 2,500-year-old mummy believed to be an ancient Egyptian priest conducted computer scans to help determine how the man died, what was buried with him and what he looked like.
In a basement lab at Stanford University Medical School, Irethorrou’s mummy lay tightly wrapped in tattered linen as a handful of scientists looked on. Starting with his feet, the scanner rotated around the mummy, snapping X-ray type images that appeared on nearby computer screens.
The pictures, showing well-preserved bone structure, were then mathematically manipulated to generate 3-D images that give a fuller picture of the skeleton.
The highly sophisticated scanning technology allows scientists to learn about the 5-foot-4-inch mummy in remarkable detail without doing invasive or damaging procedures.
“You begin to see features that relate to paleopathology, diseases that may have been suffered by the individual, also mummification style and patterns - how they may change through time,” said Dr. Jonathan Elias, director of the Pennsylvania-based Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, which directs CT scans of mummies and archives the research.
The digital images will also be useful for teaching anatomy to everyone from small children through medical school, said Paul Brown, Consulting Associate Professor at Stanford’s Department of Surgery.
“We’ll be able to look at every bone in the body, see if there are any fractures ... any artefacts,” he said. “It’s a mummy, so it makes the interest factor high.”
Irethorrou’s mummy belongs to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. It was dug up from a cemetery in Akhmim, on the east bank of the Nile. Elias said Akhmim was an important provincial capital and the site of one of Egypt’s major temples. The maternal relatives of the more famous King Tut also came from there, Elias said.
“The big picture is this is not just the analysis of one mummy,” Elias said. Studying Irethorrou, for example, can lead to a better understanding of changes in population from his time to the Tutankhamun period.
Scientists have not been able to pinpoint Irethorrou’s age when he died or his cause of death. The scanning tests may help them get a little closer. For now, they can only date him to around 500 B.C., just before the Persian conquest, when the last native Egyptian dynasty ruled.
“This is one era which is very poorly understood at this point,” Elias said. “So if this mummy is of that period, which we believe that he is, we’ll be able to begin to write a history that has never been written.”
After scientists are finished with him, Irethorrou’s mummy will be the centrepiece of an exhibit starting in October at the Legion of Honour in San Francisco. The mummy has been out on loan from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco since 1944, and the exhibit, “Very Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine,” is considered his homecoming.